Was I the Worst Customer at Starbucks — or the Best?


While I'm mostly staying home because of the pandemic, I sometimes treat myself to a Starbucks beverage while I'm out running errands.

I have traditionally been a black coffee drinker (blonde roast, mostly), which means my orders are easy and they are ready quickly.

In recent years, though, I have really fallen in love with the Nitro Cold Brew that's available at Starbucks and a growing number of coffee shops. Don't bother with the canned version of the Starbucks drink — it just doesn't live up to the real thing (although other canned nitro coffees are much better).

I generally eschew the real sugary and milky Starbucks beverages (too many carbs). But, a reasonable indulgence has been the recently introduced “Nitro Cold Brew with Dark Cocoa Almondmilk Foam.” That's a mouthful. It's only 40 calories, and I can rationalize that dark cocoa and almondmilk are reasonably healthy.

To help minimize my contact with others (even though I am always wearing a mask, as is thankfully required at Starbucks stores), I order through the Starbucks app.

I've ordered this beverage a few times before and I pulled it up on the app:

The app had a new feature that I appreciated. I ordered from the parking lot, but the app said that if I parked in a numbered spot, the barista would bring it out to my car when it was ready.

The app gives an estimate of the lead time (it said 6 to 9 minutes). I would normally go in, but if you go inside too early you'll have additional exposure to others (even with a mask) and if you go in too late, your drink might start getting warm. I felt lazy, but I rationalized it and chose the car delivery option.

I received my beverage and thanked the barista (and I didn't time how long it took, even though I am an industrial engineer after all). The drink looked normal, but I took a sip and noticed ice cubes in the drink.

“Hmmm, that's not normal, that's not right,” I thought to myself. I'm a little embarrassed to say that my first thought was that the barista had made it incorrectly. Maybe it was a training issue or a simple mixup.

I walked inside and politely asked if they could remake it without ice cubes.

“But it's a cold brew, so…”

I replied that I had ordered the nitro cold brew… and they politely corrected me and, as it showed on the sticker on the side of the cup, the order went through as cold brew — without nitrogen and foam, it DOES get ice.

The mistake was MINE, not theirs. They were not mistaken about that.


I apologized and quickly admitted I had ordered the wrong beverage. I chose from the top row, not the second row. Otherwise, the drinks have similar appearances and similar names.

The baristas graciously offered to make the correct beverage.

As she was making it (and as I continued to apologize), she kindly suggested a process improvement on my part (although she didn't use those exact words).

“You know, you can save the beverage as a favorite so you can more easily call it up in the app next time.”

“Great, I'll do that.”

But, I had trouble figuring out how (and I'm good with technology).

Another barista came around to show me how to do it. It turns out that favoriting a beverage requires that you first add it to your cart. See the green heart?

I again apologized. I made sure to put a few bucks into the tip jar (one of the few times I've used cash in the last six months).

I said, quite literally,

“I must be the worst customer you've had today.”

The barista who was making the second drink for me said,

“No, you're the BEST, because you're trying to figure it out instead of just being wrong. Most people are happy being wrong.”

I really appreciated that.

We all make mistakes. But, hopefully we learn from them. Instead of blaming others (or blaming the app), I took responsibility for my mistake.

It was a little mistake… sometimes we make bigger mistakes. Learning from them (instead of repeating them) makes all the difference.

Those are some of the themes that my guests and I explore in my new podcast “My Favorite Mistake.” I hope you'll check it out.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I may have been the worst or the best Starbucks customer a few years ago when I had to order a ½ coffee, ½ tea as part of my Ops Mgt module on my MBA – we were experimenting with employee discretion – Starbucks handled it well I might add – and the drink wasn’t actually that bad! 😃

  2. Interesting, Cordell. Would that discretion mean that some baristas might recommend that you NOT order that beverage? Did you repeat that experiment more than once? What does Starbucks policy say should happen? The customer is always right, so make anything they request even if it’s not on the menu?

  3. Hi Mark –

    I really enjoyed this story, and the lessons that it held! I am currently a student earning my Green Belt in the Lean Six Sigma program, and I thought this story truly showed how we see lean six sigma in our everyday lives. Starbucks is a great company when it comes to eliminating waste, and I found it very interesting to see how when we think we are being a stubborn customer, we are actually helping them in a way to continue to eliminate waste. Does mobile ordering always eliminate waste or are there cons to this as well? Do you think mobile ordering causes more issues and has a larger margin of error than ordering in person?

  4. I enjoyed your post, Mark. I am currently a senior Supply Chain Management major at URI and plan to be green belt certified by the end of the semester. This post opened my eyes to your perspective as an experienced professional when it comes to lean processes. The way that you approached an everyday task with lean values shows me that the topic of lean six sigma can be applied to many different scenarios, while I have trouble applying lean six sigma outside of class. It seems as though your knowledge and expertise in the field helps in your daily life, and I hope I can some day seamlessly use lean six sigma practices in a similar fashion.


  5. Hi Mark I really enjoyed this post and can relate to it a lot. I work at a ice cream shop and sometimes I have similar interactions with customers like you did with the barista. We newly started an online cake ordering program and it had many bugs when it first was rolled out but with customers calling and voicing their issues it made our program 100 times better. From reading your post I can now understand that these smaller circumstances are considered to be apart of Lean six sigma which I did not think of before.

  6. Hi Mark– I enjoyed your post, being a student studying Lean it was interesting see you connect this story to practices. The quote you shared from the barista “No, you’re the BEST, because you’re trying to figure it out instead of just being wrong. Most people are happy being wrong.” exemplifies Lean to a tee. The idea of recognizing a problem and coming to terms with a solution(s). Being a lean thinker correlates to asking questions and your experience with Starbucks shows that. Really interesting to see your daily experience with how process improvement can be where we least expect it.

  7. I was back at Starbucks today… ordered the Nitro cold brew through the app…

    This time, the drink had ice. Oh no, did I order wrong again??

    No, this time, it was their mistake. The order and the label said Nitro… but they made it with regular cold brew.


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